“We must transform ourselves first”

Strategic digitalisation for local authorities

Piva eGov is a provincial internal independent agency, originally set up to provide operational ICT support to local authorities in East Flanders. “But if you want them to be able to take on the challenges of today, changes must primarily be made at the strategic ICT level,” says Dirk Goeminne, the agency's director. Together with Vlerick, piva eGov has developed a new customised service provision to help local authorities with their digital transformation.

Piva eGov 2.0

Dirk Goeminne - piva eGov“But we didn't feel ready to provide strategic support, so first we had to transform ourselves,” explains Dirk. Hence, in 2016, piva eGov embarked on a transformation process with Professor Stijn Viaene and senior researcher Joachim Van den Bergh. During a series of interactive workshops, facilitated by Stijn and Joachim, Dirk and his team defined five practical, simple rules to provide guidelines for the strategic transformation.

“In this way, we want to position ourselves as a neutral, non-commercial service provider for local authorities that combines operational and strategic support, so our interventions always have measurable, positive results,” says Dirk. “Furthermore, when we were formulating these rules, we continually checked if there was sufficient backing for them within our organisation.” 

Service design

Then, together with Stijn and Joachim, the transformation process that piva eGov had undergone was further developed into a supported process for local authorities.

“Once again, this happened through interactive workshops in which we developed a set of instruments – a documented process and diverse tools and techniques that we could use to tailor the process to the local authority in question,” according to Dirk. “One of the most important tools is a simple strategic framework that approaches the ICT strategy at three levels, based on three questions: (1) ‘direct’, or what the role of ICT is; (2) ‘structure’, or what ICT is going to do; and (3) ‘perform’, or how ICT is going to work.” 

Facilitate and co-create

Four local authorities—the municipality of Horebeke, the town of Ninove, the municipality of Temse and the town of Zottegem—were involved in the roll-out of the new service provisions. One of the initiatives from Flanders' Radical Digital (Vlaanderen Radicaal Digitaal) was the I-monitor, with which towns and municipalities could evaluate their digital maturity. The towns and municipalities revealed to be less mature by the evaluation were invited to join the supported process, and the aforementioned four accepted the invitation. Both ICT and policy staff took part in the process.

During every supported process, piva eGov acted as a facilitator, but it was participants from the local authority, ICT staff and representatives from the business side who together determined the strategic framework, the priorities and the simple rules.

“During the roll-out we further developed and refined our supported process and instrument sets, in an iterative manner, by listening to the feedback from all those involved,” recalls Dirk. “If something didn't work, we adjusted it in the following session.”

Change in mentality

“By itself, setting priorities at the three strategic levels for which there is backing, and anchoring these in some clear, simple rules, is enough to improve digital maturity, with the same available resources. After all, such a transformation process helps to work in a more focused way, so that the scarce resources invested deliver results,” summarises Dirk.

And he continues: “With the four participating local authorities, this had already generated the necessary backing for decisions taken and produced a change in mentality: ICT is no longer considered as a purely supportive function, but as an integral part of policy.”

In Dirk's experience, that is where the problem lies: “All too often, ICT is still seen as either purely supportive, or is equated with flashy apps and websites. Apps and websites are great, don't get me wrong, but before they are in place big structural changes are sometimes required, which people want to forget about. Information-led institutions have become a reality. But what information can truly mean, what role the government must play in information access and structure, how citizens can participate, etc., is sometimes not well assessed at present.”

And now?

The four local authorities have been offered a follow-up process: “Together with them we have determined the guiding principles for the three strategic levels, and now, in collaboration, we are going to ensure that they keep applying these principles in the future.”

Other local authorities don't need to wait for the new I-monitor to start a transformation process, adds Dirk: “Last November, in conjunction with Vlerick, we organised a ‘Strategic digitalisation' study day in which around thirty local authorities took part. We presented our new service provision there, and currently there are follow-up conversations taking place with the participants to see if we can assist them further.”

The local elections of 2018 could also be a catalyst for some towns and municipalities: “Administrations are now beginning to think themselves about how, regardless of potential changes in policy, they can guarantee continuity. In policy papers, they advise future coalitions on priorities, such as public works and the environment, but also in relation to ICT. Even undergoing a digital transformation process can help to write such policy papers. Thanks to Vlerick we are able to support them in the transformation process.”

The business first

Finally, Dirk once again underlines the importance of their own transformation for the new service provision: “Two years ago, we were still focused on the technical side of ICT and digitalisation. Today, the needs of the business are put first. As our technical experts also participated in our transformation process, they think much more about the 'why' behind ICT. This shift would not have been possible without a partner such as Vlerick.”

Want to know more?
Read the report of the 'Strategic digitalisation' study day (Dutch only).

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